December 30, 2016

Messing With Mother Nature Guest Post Mike Juran



 22 degrees at sunrise, fog freezing everything it touches.  It’s just the Wisconsin trout opener in January right?

Or maybe it’s the cold front that socked and shocked Arkansas one day after my arrival last week that put the fish into a deep freeze?  Let’s couple the unusual cold front for this time of year with an increased demand for electrical power (spelled HEAT in the south) and the hydroelectric dams generating for several hours in the morning and several hours in the evening.  Which spells extreme rising and dropping water and fishing at the first shoal until the high water comes, then driving miles downstream to the next shoal and repeat the hopscotching until you run out of shoals and are forced to fish up next to the dam that has stopped generating for a few hours until you can move back down to the nearest shoal.

Note in the map, shoals areas are identified with the approximate times it takes water released from the dam to reach these areas.  I outlined in red boxes the areas we fished.

Planning a trip to this tailwater below Greers Ferry dam can be so fickle this time of year.  Several years had heavy rain and gates and generators flying full tilt open for weeks making the river completely unfishable. 

 My first trip here in 2006 it was a balmy 60-70 degrees every afternoon and zero generation and perfect fishing conditions with 50-100 fish days.  The pay off if you hit a right moment can be grand, with 30 inch fish a real possibility (see Dan’s pictures/mount below).  The browns move into the shoals to spawn and the rainbows follow along trying to become a brown’s meal to gorge on eggs.  Nothing is a lock or a given when fishing this water until the day you fish it.  They only publish a generation schedule at 3PM for the following day.  And even then, as you will hear, there is a certain amount of danger and uncertainty in fishing here.

After an uneventful flight to Memphis, Dan (brother in law) picked me up at the airport about 11 and we embarked on a 3 hour drive to Heber Springs.  I have both flown and driven (14 hours), but Delta gave me a travel voucher from a prior business trip that made this a free flight to Memphis.  Amy, Dan’s wife,  traveled in her own vehicle so she could fish for as long as she could tolerate the predicted cold and then head back to the hotel when necessary.  We caravanned to Heber Springs loaded with fishing gear and bourbon, our two favorite past times.  

At 2:45 pm, we decided to fish right away and check in to the hotel later.  This turned out to be a great choice.  We started at our favorite spot, Cow Shoals 5.5 miles below the dam. 


Dan landed a really nice kyped 23” brown and Amy and I tallied a number of rainbows and decent fat browns around 16”.  It appeared we had timed the trip perfectly and the initial results of two hours of fishing fortified our thoughts.  

 Even the next morning, albeit a bit cold in the morning (37 degrees) yielded a few fish and this nice 17” female off of Libby Shoals(17 miles downstream), which we were forced to fish because they were running two generator units and the water on the preferred Cow and Swinging Bridge shoals was running too high at daylight.  I even spotted a 25-30” brown on Libby slowly working her way up the shoal.  

 We fished til about 11 and the water came up so we headed for lunch and went up to the dam and its series of pools to check out how the water had dropped (generation ceased at 10).  It takes the water on the shoals a lot longer to drop than it does to come up.  Cow Shoals for example will rise about 60-90 minutes after they open two generators at the dam.  Conversely it will take over 3-4 hours before the water will start to drop to a fishable level.  So it as constant ‘cat-and-mouse’ game we play with the Army Corp of Engineers and the South Western Power Authority.  Water that was ankle deep becomes water easily over your head by several feet.

During the spawn, fishing the shoals is preferable.  We leave spawning fish alone but look for the ‘traveling’ fish that are on the move to/from spawning redds.  Late in the day on a sunny afternoon when they aren’t going whole-hog on generation, you can be fishing and see a lot of fish on the move.  Sometimes I unconsciously stop fishing and watch the show below the surface.  It can be mesmerizing as the water is gin clear and there are underwater islands of grass that you can watch fish swim over.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful in terms of fish despite fishing from sun up to sun down.  I even called a fellow DTA’er (Caster) about how he fishes the dam there at Greers Ferry as we had minimal experience working those deep green pools.  We landed rainbows there by the dam, but it wasn’t our preferred quarry.  

The rest of the trip however wasn’t completely uneventful or without drama.  If you are reading this to see more pictures of big fish, stop reading.  If you are interested in learning lessons from mistakes, read on.  

To set the stage, tail-waters of Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas can produce fantastic fishing.  They can also kill people.  And for a couple hours on Thursday, I feared I may have lost my brother-in-law.  We had returned to Cow Shoals mid-afternoon and the water was slightly higher than we were used to.  But the water was fishable so we worked our way to one of our favorite spots below Cow Shoals.  After only a few small fish, Dan decided to cross the river in knee deep water.  After a couple stumbles and balancing act saves, Dan safely arrived on the other side in pursuit of fish he had seen.  We had called the dam generation line and they stated they were starting generation at 4PM, which would take til at least 5PM (dark) before it reached us.  Dan had reasoned he’d fish for an hour and then cross over long before any high water would reach us.  Things don’t always go as planned.

About 3:50 Dan walked back upstream from where he is in above picture.  He yelled over to me and asked ‘Where did I cross’?  At that moment both of us realized the water was higher and where Dan had crossed was a couple inches higher. 2 generator units were opened at 3PM instead of 4PM and the water had begun to reach Cow Shoals.  The current was much stronger as well.  Dan moved into position and started to make his way across.  Dan stumbled and fell to his knees, the water ripping across his waist.  He regained his footing and stood up and moved a few feet ahead and started to move towards me again. 

 This time, his right foot went out and Dan fell, bracing himself on his knees and hands, water rushing against his chest.  At this moment, Dan realized he wasn’t coming back the way he came and he struggled mightily to reach a grass island that was now covered by a foot of water.  I worried if he fell to the left where the current was even stronger he would be swept downstream.  He surveyed his options and decided to try for the east shore instead of trying to come across to me on the west side.

 There was one problem with this choice.  Besides having to again face fast paced water between the grass island and the shoreline, which Dan eventually negotiated with great difficulty, Dan was now stranded on that side of the river.  The folklore was that if you got stranded on that side of the river you were going to have to build a fire and stay the night.  27 degree lows that evening made that a less appealing option.  If Dan climbed the bluff and tried to walk his way out, it would be a 7 mile hike if he knew where he was going and which direction.  Both of which he did not know.  Additionally, Dan was soaking wet and the afternoon temperature was now 34 and we were 20 minutes from dark.  

 When Dan eventually reached the shoreline, he grabbed his cell phone only to discover it was dead from getting wet (another lesson learned).  At this stage two neighbors on the shoreline drive above me had come running down with worried looks on their faces.  They had seen Dan fall in.  Dan is 71 years old and had just had a heart stent put in earlier this year.  We feared the stress of the battle with the river and the cold was taking a toll on him.  They called 911 and the search and rescue boats from two counties were dispatched.  I signaled to Dan with hand signals to climb above waterline and stay there.  Dan had signaled with an ‘Ok’ sign to me.  By the time I reached the neighbors and talked with them, Dan had disappeared into the trees climbing up the bluff.  I didn’t see him top out and lost him in the brush somewhere about half way up the climb.

The rescue crew from Heber Springs arrived about 10 minutes later.  They said their boats were about 15-20 minutes out.  I figured great, they would swing over, pick up Dan and all would be well.  But when we all called out, no response from Dan.  At this stage, I realized I had to call Amy and explain the situation.  How do you tell a spouse that their husband may be in serious trouble?  It took Amy a second to comprehend what I was telling her.  At first she thought I was joking.  Then she realized I was not.  And Amy is very familiar with this stretch of river and understood the possible consequences of what had just transpired.

Eventually the rescue boats arrived and began shining their intense spotlights on the hillside and bluff, calling to Dan.  No movement.  No response.  They parked their boats and began the arduous climb zig-zagging back and forth search from where Dan had exited the water.  They eventually topped out with no sighting of Dan.  Several stayed back and retraced their steps and continued the search of the hill.  The others spanned out and began search above.  I will never forget the look on Amy’s face.  We were both thinking the same thing.  Dan was lying somewhere on that hillside and in deep trouble.

About 2 hours later, a call came over the radio.  They had found Dan.  He had walked by their estimation about 9 miles, having taken several wrong turns and having to retrace his steps.  He was wet, cold and very embarrassed.  Amy and I both breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Amy turned to the fire rescue chief and said “Thank you for finding him, I am so relieved.  I will be calling you again for your services cause now I am gonna kill him!”.   Dan hadn’t lost his sense of humor either, telling the rescue worker whose truck he was riding in “ …maybe you should just drop me at the hotel, cause my wife is gonna kill me”.

I believe an entire bottle of Knob Creek was consumed that evening back at the hotel.  It is a dry county and a 50 mile drive to the nearest place to purchase alcohol.  Knowing this, we packed in our own!.  Each of the three of us relayed the thoughts and emotions of what had just transpired.
 
The rest of the trip was a lot of hard work, cold temperatures and very few fish.  Oh and I almost forgot, a bit expensive for my brother in law, as he wrote donation checks to both of the rescue agencies involved in his search.  Lesson learned.  Do not mess with flowing water that fluctuates.  Do not trust the published or phone line generation schedules.  We had seen piles of rocks, like the buddha zen rocks I had seen in Sedona, Arizona stacked up in neat monument piles.  Now we know these rocks allow you to monitor the rising or falling water levels. 

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